Downtown plan: free shuttles, river development

About $408 million in public and private investment downtown since 2010.

An updated plan to revitalize downtown Dayton calls for creating a free shuttle service between popular destinations in the urban core and completing a master plan for the burgeoning river corridor.

Unveiled Wednesday during an event at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, the new Greater Downtown Dayton Plan builds on recent progress in the center city and seeks to accelerate growth related to housing, economic development, arts and recreation and transportation choices.

The plan proposes creating a free “circulator,” or shuttle service, to better connect the city’s assets, such as the University of Dayton, the Oregon Historic District, the Central Business District, Sinclair Community College and the Wright-Dunbar district.

The plan also recommends creating and implementing a master plan for downtown’s riverfront. The goal is to prepare for and encourage increased recreational activities and commercial and residential development along the waterway.

Other priorities highlighted included creating a new fund to provide financial assistance to housing projects and offering more first-floor retail and commercial spaces that are ready for move-in.

The plan recommends reusing empty historical buildings as housing and remaking commercial spaces in the city’s aging office towers.

“New strategies are required to build on our existing assets,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, co-chair of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

The Greater Downtown Dayton Plan was rolled out in 2010 to provide a strategy to revive the center city by mitigating unsavory elements of downtown and strengthening and adding to its assets, organizers said.

Since then, the center city has benefited from about $408 million in public and private investment, according to the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

About $40.5 million worth of projects are underway, and $182 million worth of projects are in development, not including the Interstate 75 improvements.

The community-driven plan addressed ways of retaining and attracting businesses, expanding housing options, creating outdoor recreation attractions, developing a distinct entertainment district and improving walkability and mobility. The plan was updated in 2012 and then again this year year.

Hundreds of people — including many elected officials, business owners and community leaders — attended Wednesday’s event to learn more about the progress made downtown and the evolving vision to bolster its resurgence.

The updated plan recommends creating a free shuttle service by 2016 to connect some of downtown’s anchors.

The circulator project will help make downtown streets more connected and livable, said Mark Donaghy, executive director of the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority.

“Other downtowns have successfully implemented focused, downtown bus routes that circulate through destinations in the center city,” he said.

Nashville, Tenn., operates free three bus routes to key inner-city destinations, which stop at more than 75 locations. Baltimore, Md., also has a fleet of 30 free shuttles that travel along four routes and provide access to hot spots.

The goal is to identify funding for a similar project in Dayton, said Michael Ervin, co-chair of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

“We have all these great places downtown … you got the Schuster center, you’ve got great restaurants in the Oregon District, you’ve got UD,” Ervin said. “But what’s the one missing thing? They are not connected.”

Another priority is cultivating opportunities for outdoor recreation and capitalizing on the $1 million in investments to the river corridor and the $5.5 million more to come.

The $4 million RiverScape River Run project will remove a low dam in the Great Miami River near the Art Institute and construct two passageways for paddlers. The greater downtown plan recommends increasing access and programming along the water, especially considering that more people are living, working and visiting the center city

“We want to leverage that with more events on the river, with programming, with classes to teach people how to paddle,” said Carrie Scarff, deputy director of Five Rivers MetroParks.

The area along the river is ripe for investment and may become most desirable place to live and work in the next decade, Ervin said.

The $33.5 million Water Street project will create new more than 215 new rental units and a four-story office building near the banks of the river. The potential relocation of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds could result in the creation of a large, multi-use development also near the water.

Another new element of the downtown plan is to create a multimillion-dollar fund to aid housing projects with pre-development, construction and acquisition costs.

More than 800 businesses call the urban core home, and its mix of industries and employers continues to diversify, said Chris Wire, owner of Real Art Design Group and the Proto BuildBar, who presented at the event.

The abundance of vacant storefronts remains a problem in the urban core, and entrepreneurs often lack the capital to pay for major renovation and rehabilitation projects, said Shelley Dickstein, Dayton’s assistant city manager for strategic development.

Downtown needs more commercial and retail properties that have been renovated so they are ready for immediate occupancy, she said. She also said the city’s vacant office towers need to adapt to remain competitive.

The plan also seeks to increase programming in Courthouse Square, improve the signage and “way-finding” systems downtown and fill unused street-level spaces with art and cultural activities.

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